I’ve got a few questions for virtual reality filmmakers

So, I’m sitting aboard a flight to Boston at the moment. I just finished a bout of midterms at Northwestern University that allegedly went well enough for me to make it through undergrad. I have an $8 beer in my hand that Spirit Airlines is using to subsidize their garbage service, but more importantly, I’m grappling with a lot of questions surrounding reality and stuff.

Where I’m heading is critical to my current musings; tomorrow, I’m joining some of the more innovative and technologically progressive documentary filmmakers and academics in the country at MIT OpenDocLab’s Virtually There VR filmmaking conference to get a better sense of where the VR filmmaking industry thinks that it’s headed.

Virtual reality has massive implications for film, but in spite of the excitement surrounding the epic, livable experiences that will be offered, there’s more than a little uncertainty surrounding how exactly the industry gets itself to that point.

VR is in the odd early adopter phase right now where it’s really hard to judge the stickiness of certain ideas because people with VR headsets are more willing than most to give apps and pieces of content the benefit of the doubt. This makes it an awesome place for developers to experiment but also makes certain strategies misleadingly viable as people are willing to prioritize notoriety over genuine utility early on. It’s a bit like when the iPhone App Store first came out and people were downloading the Zippo and Koi Pond apps by the thousands, they were interesting, but obviously not all that sustainable.

There are more than a few questions to parse in this regard. Well-made virtual reality content is undoubtedly powerful and will, by most filmmakers’ admissions, dominate the future of the immersive video content that consumers absorb. There are a lot of roadblocks, however, on the way to what many see as the cosmic inevitability of this platform dominating film.

Here are the questions I’m grappling with as I now wait for Spirit to find me a Moscow Mule.

What the hell does reality look like in a VR film/documentary?

True virtual reality filmmaking is divided into categories which differ depending on the role the viewer is taking. The questions filmmakers ask here are: will the viewers be active participants or passive observers? Can they influence the outcome of the experience or are they effectively just along for the ride? More broadly, what are the viewer’s constraints within this reality?

It’s here where the line between video game and film gets really, really blurry. When you’re giving your viewer the opportunity to influence the story line in a deep capacity, you’re doing more than presenting them with a static screen viewpoint, you’re giving them a complex, easily malleable environment in which they can experience another person’s life. Can this still even be considered film?

Game engines like Unreal and Unity may end up playing just as important a role in VR filmmaking as high-end cameras do. As tech evolves, 360-degree light field cameras could construct navigable real world environments and allow game engines to fill in the textured details, allowing us to be on set and walk behind characters or through doorways to explore realistic representations. In the meantime, filmmakers and documentarians are left determining what makes sense and what’s too much to ask for on the part of the user.

These shifting paradigms fit in much less snugly when it comes to documentaries though. How can something be a true representation when part of it is being manufactured? Where are the ethical lines?

Where exactly do I focus? Oh, and why do I care again?

Immersion in virtual reality heavily involves recreating the five senses and mastering motion to direct our attention. While the major headsets out right now from Oculus, HTC and Samsung/Oculus rely only on motion tracking, sight and hearing, companies are already working on full body suits that let you “feel” reality and smell sensors that let you sniff your surroundings. Soon, eye-tracking will give us the opportunity to attract eye-contact from AI participants, and eventually, expression-tracking will allow us to convey emotions to those around us as well.

The sophistication of the human mind is the limit to where these sensors could take us. Some of the stuff is wacky, but one thing that’s clear is that there’s still a long road ahead in learning how to direct attention in VR.

Is all of this worth it though? Do we really need to be intimately involved in a story to the point of having a tongue sensor cueing us in to whether our burger was prepared medium-well? Probably not, but this does highlight the idea that filmmakers might be captive to the influences and whims of headset and input designers as the tech evolves.

With TV, new upgrades brought more pixels, but with VR, new models will bring VR closer to regular R. Filmmakers as well as camera manufacturers are going to have to adapt quickly to figure out what new sensors will give them the cutting edge advantage and what is largely just wasted effort.

Is humanity too lazy for active VR storytelling?

This question is a little more broad across VR, yet no easier to answer. People are often craving entertainment when they’re back from work and are a little physically drained, but VR thrives when people are transposing high physical activity into wild virtual scenarios. That could mean walking around and reaching for things with their hands, or standing and spinning around to observe virtual environments.

How lazy will we really become though? When various input mechanisms give us the option to be slobs, that’s what we indubitably gravitate towards. I didn’t have a Nintendo Wii for two weeks before I was playing Wii tennis by flicking my wrist while I was laying down on the couch with a bowl of chips sitting on my chest. The world of WALL-E may not be something we want to flock towards, but the path of least resistance finds a way in any technology and it’s altogether unwise for content creators to force users down less efficient avenues of taking action.

Right now, VR film is in the same kind of “neato” phase where people who try it are deeply impressed just because virtual reality is new and fresh. After a few dozen lengthy pieces of content are experienced and the neck pain sets in, the notoriety wears off a bit though, and it becomes clear that while there’s undoubtedly massive potential, stories aren’t being optimized for VR all that well at the moment.

Is this all too much too soon?

The common refrain of VR skeptics is that VR is stupid and bulky at the moment and while the underlying tenants of VR/AR/MR may hold true, it’s simply too early for us to be getting this riled up about it. They’ll show you the fervent conversations regarding Google Glass from five years ago and suggest that this is all just another case of Silicon Valley folks getting too absorbed by their own soothsayer senses of futurism.

Even if this is the case, does it really matter? Won’t developers and entrepreneurs just be more ready for the advent of stacked realities when they arrive? The concern here really isn’t on the part of the people investing their livelihoods in the platform, but on the part of the consumers half-heartedly reading headlines. Their attention is worth a lot more in this case and any false alarms could mean a tougher time getting the ball rolling next time.

An undeniable truth is that virtual reality is currently being shoved down the throats of a lot of people that haven’t even had the chance to try it. Even many of those who ordered an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive headset within minutes of the first crop going on sale still haven’t even tried it. What I mean by this is that it’s still terribly early in this industry and people who think VR is going to replace the TV or movie theater in any way within the next five years are smoking something pretty choice.

Nevertheless, virtual reality is exciting so many people right now because it really represents what many, myself included, see as the next shift in computing. Augmented reality may usher in a true quantum leap in productivity, but VR gives us an avenue to achieve next-gen entertainment and the ability to transport ourselves into different modes of thought and environment— a couple of things that are pretty fundamental to modern film.

Where we get depends a lot on the willingness of consumers to suspend disbelief and approach VR films and documentaries not only as a new type of content but as a new method of embracing their senses.

I’ll be posing a lot of questions (hopefully more succinctly) this weekend to VR filmmakers and I’ll keep you updated on whether these questions get answered. Then next week, you can keep up with the TechCrunch team at Disrupt NY where, among a ton of other things, we’ll be chatting with high-profile VR filmmaker Chris Milk and I’ll be hosting a panel of some cool folks chatting about the future of VR content.